BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's most powerful Shiite leader rejected yesterday making major changes to the new constitution, diminishing Sunni Arab hopes of amending the charter to avoid being shut out of the nation's vast oil wealth.
Sunnis were reluctant to sign on to the constitution last fall, fearing that provisions granting wide powers to autonomous regions would leave oil in the hands of Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. Sunnis dominate in western, and much of northwestern and north-central Iraq, but the oil lies beneath Kurdistan and parts of southern Iraq that one day may be subsumed in a semi-independent region controlled by Shiites.
The constitution was amended before the October referendum so legislators elected in the national voting last month could change it with a two-thirds vote. Some Shiites also voiced a willingness to negotiate with Sunnis on amendments.
But yesterday Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, vowed to give no ground on crucial parts of the constitution.
"We will stop anyone who tries to change the constitution," said Hakim, whose party has close ties to Iran. "Many of the people who voted for us were promised federalism in the south," he said, referring to the form of government allowing for semiautonomous regions. He said Kurds, who joined Shiites to form the ruling coalition, "agree with us about this condition, and we will continue our strategic coalition with our Kurdish brothers."
The speech was Hakim's latest hard-line statement directed at Sunni Arabs, whom Shiites accuse of fomenting violence to improve bargaining leverage in the new government. While he previously signaled unwillingness to reopen major constitutional issues, Hakim's belligerent declarations are sure to anger Sunnis hopeful of carving out a meaningful role in the government.
Yet it may not be that simple. While Sunni Arabs boycotted elections a year ago, they turned out heavily last month and are thought to have won about 20 percent of the seats in parliament. A Western diplomat in Baghdad said Shiites and Kurds probably did not win enough seats on their own to reach the two-thirds majority needed to appoint an executive branch.
So while Shiites have enough votes to block constitutional changes, they may need to draw in parties other than the Kurds to obtain a two-thirds governing majority. If Sunnis are called on to make up that difference, amending the constitution is sure to top their bargaining list.
Desperate to deflate the Sunni-dominated insurgency, U.S. officials are pushing Shiites to accept constitutional changes. The American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Monday that the charter "will likely need to be amended in the coming year to broaden support."